IN her long and celebrated career as an artist, Wendy Sharpe has gone to the farthest corners of the world and even deep into a conflict zone to paint. Now she is reaching new heights in the name of her art.
Sharpe is suspended in space above Maitland Regional Art Gallery’s ground floor, as she paints directly onto a wall. The artist is standing on a scissor lift, which has been raised about six metres. She is staring intently ahead, guiding the brush across the wall. Sharpe may be fearless in pursuing painting subjects, but she’s not that keen on looking below.
“It’s a little bit scary,” Sharpe says later. “But I get to paint huge whacking things on these walls.
“And I don’t look straight down.”
Working on a scissor lift brings other challenges. There’s no stepping back to check the image, and the artist has to prepare great dollops of paint on a palette before hopping onto the lift. What’s more, she has had to “relinquish” control of the lift to gallery assistant Edward Milan.
More than painting on the gallery wall, Sharpe is painting the gallery on the wall. She is depicting the majestic century-old building that houses the gallery. As the building takes shape in paint, Sharpe lifts her brush off the wall and turns.
“Starting to recognise it?,” she asks.
Sharpe is addressing a cluster of onlookers standing on the first floor. Just like anyone performing at heights, she has drawn a crowd. But it’s not just the thrill of the high-flying creative act that keeps the spectators, it is the rare opportunity to watch a famous artist at work.
“She’s a goddess in the art world,” says Megan Barrass, herself an artist. She has travelled from Port Stephens to meet Sharpe and observe her painting.
“The opportunity here, it just doesn’t happen usually. We’re very lucky to have her here.”
Wendy Sharpe is one of Australia’s best-known painters. The art “goddess” won Australia’s highest-profile art award, the Archibald Prize, for her Self Portrait – as Diana of Erskineville. It is one of a string of awards Sharpe has won.
In 1999, she was appointed an official artist by the Australian War Memorial to depict the Australian troops’ efforts to restore peace in East Timor. She has set up temporary studios and painted in places ancient and remote, from Egypt and India to Antarctica.
These days, she and her artist partner Bernard Ollis also spend a lot of time working in Paris. So more than the world being her oyster, it has been Wendy Sharpe’s muse.
The plan to have Sharpe as an artist-in-residence at Maitland was hatched a couple of years ago, when the gallery’s director, Brigette Uren, met with the painter.
While Sharpe has created murals and painted inside galleries before, what has been forming on the walls, and the interest it has been creating, pushes beyond what Uren imagined.
“It’s so exciting to see the gallery like this,” Uren says, as she looks out at the spectators.
“I love the performative aspect of it, and to experience a leading Australian artist first-hand would have an immeasurable impact on the audience.”
In her three days as artist-in-residence in Maitland, Sharpe has painted a string of large images on the gallery’s walls. One painting is a version of her self-portrait, Red Dress. Only in this image, which is almost five metres high and more than three metres wide, Sharpe acknowledges the Hunter with a pattern of grapes on the dress, and, in the background, she has painted the Maitland railway signal box. She photographed the building when she arrived by train from Sydney on Sunday.
“It’s such a distinctive building,” Sharpe says. The artist shows me a historic photo she was given. The photo was taken during the 1955 flood that ravaged the city, and it depicts a signal box sitting like an island amid surging waters. That signal box was washed away, replaced by the building Sharpe has depicted on the gallery wall.
On another wall, high above the ground floor, she has painted three figures carrying a building. It is her tribute to what she has seen around Maitland, with its grand heritage structures.
“I was so shocked by how stunning the architecture is here,” Sharpe says.
Yet perhaps her favourite building is the gallery itself, not just for the architecture but for what is happening inside it. She calls the gallery “such a special place”. It is why she accepted the artist-in-residency.
“Coming to a place like this, I can do whatever I want, and I’m supported,” Sharpe explains. “And this gallery is helping create an art precinct. As I’m walking along this main street, I see other shops starting as art galleries. So it’s becoming more of a special place.”
Director Brigette Uren says Sharpe’s presence in the gallery displays a strong connection between a city-based artist who works at the highest levels and a region that loves exploring new ideas.
“I consider Maitland people very generous in how inquisitive they are, in wanting to find out more,” Uren says. “And it’s in that spirit Wendy works; she is very generous. So I think that makes it a match from heaven.”
Wendy Sharpe has descended from the artistic heavens near the gallery’s ceiling to inspect an installation. For the paintings she’s doing on the walls are part of a larger exhibition of her work in the gallery, titled Secrets. The exhibition reflects the diversity of her career, from the places she has visited to her residency with Circus Oz.
Dozens of Sharpe’s works on paper are being arranged and fastened onto one wall by three gallery volunteers. The images range from quickly drawn sketches, capturing a thought or a moment before it drifts away, through to fine watercolour paintings.
The images depict fragments of exotic scenes, love in all its connotations, burlesque performers bathed in light, and silhouettes under a night sky. There are sketches of strangers, and self-portraits.
Each image stuck on the wall is brimming with life of some sort. But the sum of these parts is a lung-tearing cheer for the beauty of humanity, and for the joy of life itself.
“It’s a fun thing to do,” Sharpe says, smiling, as she watches the volunteers sift through her images strewn across the floor. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle.”
I notice a few images have been drawn on bar coasters, collected on her travels. “Yes,” she responds. “The publicans of Maitland should lock away their coasters!”
“This is about things you don’t normally get to see,” Sharpe says of the wall of images. “There are dreams or ideas you don’t pursue, and there are works you could frame.
“I’m often asked about a painting, ‘Where did you get the idea from?’. Well, this is a bit of a clue to that.”
So this exhibition, as the title suggests, is letting the viewer in on a secret. We learn how an artist thinks and works.
“It’s very rare to see this,” says the exhibition’s curator, Kim Blunt. “You see an artist in situ, making decisions, making art, and feeling comfortable about it.
“It says a lot about Wendy that we get to see her practice in its entirety. It’s the result of many parts.”
When the exhibition is over, Sharpe’s wall images will be painted over, a thought that makes Kim Blunt wince: “It’s going to be a weird sensation, painting over the work.”
When she’s not painting on the walls or inspecting works being hung, Sharpe is talking to spectators.
She is wearing a spattered apron, and her arms are blotched with a burgundy paint. But that hardly dissuades onlookers, who line up for selfies or an autograph.
“She’s got a big fan club, actually,” says Alita Knaggs, an art teacher from Fingal Bay, who has just secured an autograph on a catalogue.
“I’ve been teaching Wendy to my students this year.”
The artist herself is preparing to climb back onto the scissor lift. There is a wall image to be painted. She turns back to the onlookers, smiles and hollers, “Come to the opening on Sunday!”
Alita Knaggs nods and watches Wendy prepare to ascend once more. Not that Sharpe can climb any higher in her eyes.
“This is the first time I’ve met her,” Knaggs says. “And she stands up to her reputation.”
Secrets. Maitland Regional Art Gallery until August 19. Official opening with Wendy Sharpe, from 11am, Sunday.